Senior lawyer guilty of professional misconduct
The Samoa Law Society has shed more light on the nature of its investigation against suspended senior lawyer, Maiava Visekota Peteru, revealing she had pleaded guilty to professional misconduct in mishandling client funds.
This was confirmed in a media statement issued by the Society.
"The Samoa Law Society received a number of complaints against Ms Peteru including two complaints in December 2018 regarding mishandling of her clients’ funds in the amounts of $61,000 and $12,000," the statement reads.
"Due to the seriousness of the complaints, Ms. Peteru was suspended from practice effective 1 April 2019."
According to the Samoa Law Society, the complaints were referred to the Society’s Complaints and Investigation Committee.
The Tribunal which investigated the matter against Maiava was chaired by Aumua Ming Leung Wai, with members including Lefau Harry Schuster and Tauiliili Lerissa Fong. Maiava was also the subject of a mandatory audit arising from the complaints.
"At the conclusion of the complaint investigation process, the Committee laid a number of charges against Ms Peteru for professional misconduct and unsatisfactory professional conduct. The charges were heard before the Lawyers’ Disciplinary Tribunal, whose members are senior lawyers and a community member," the statement continues.
"At the commencement of the hearing, Ms Peteru pleaded guilty to two charges of professional misconduct for failing to bank client funds in a separate trust account and failing to pay funds as clients directed. Several other charges against Ms. Peteru were then withdrawn.
"The Disciplinary Tribunal noted that Ms Peteru’s misconduct puts at risk the reputation of the legal profession. When imposing penalties, the Tribunal was also mindful of the seriousness of the misconduct and the importance of restoring public confidence in the legal profession.
"The Tribunal ordered that Ms Peteru be suspended for a period of 2 years, backdated to her suspension effective 1 April 2019. The Tribunal further ordered that before Ms Peteru can recommence as a legal practitioner, she must complete a trust account training programme and be subject to periodic inspection of her trust account records."
Contacted for a comment by the Samoa Observer last week, Maiava said she has accepted the decision.
“I accept the decision of the Law Society Disciplinary Tribunal and intend to comply with any conditions prescribed,” she said.
“I look ahead to March 2021 to resume practise and continue to serve the public as I have for the past 35 years. I gratefully acknowledge clients, friends and family for their support.”
According to the Society's statement, the Samoa Law Society’s functions include promoting proper conduct amongst lawyers, particularly management of client funds held on trust and to investigate and prosecute misconduct to maintain the legal profession’s integrity.
The President of the Society, Leiataualesa Komisi Koria, said lawyers must handle client funds with utmost care.
"A lawyer’s handling of trust funds is at the very heart of the fiduciary relationship between lawyer and client and the obligations must be treated as sacrosanct," Leiataualesa is quoted as saying.
"Mishandling of client funds is a gross breach of trust. It is important that lawyers comply with the highest ethical standards and that the community has confidence in the legal profession and its conduct."